A Winning Score:

Evaluate Your Horse Using the Henneke Body Condition Score

By Kim Lewis


Why the Henneke Body Condition Score?

I could show you the photos but this would only make you sick. The photos I refer to are from horses examined - some dead, some alive and some in between. The common thread is that each of these horses was in some state of decline that could have, should have been easily recognized and monitored by the owner and/or local authorities. The trouble was, and still remains in some areas, that while many law enforcement and humane investigators knew plenty about the abuse of canines, felines etc., many were ill equipped to deal with horse neglect and abuse investigations. Subsequently, and historically, most equine neglect cases went unchecked or ignored. That is until the 80's. It was then that Dr. Don R. Henneke, at Texas A&M University, developed a useful tool now known as the Henneke Body Condition Score.


The Henneke Body Condition Score (BCS) allowed investigators in the field an invaluable tool with which to draw a clear picture of progress and decline in equine animals. It has become a staple in the investigation and resolution of hundreds of such cases. Now, this tool, which was originally used by investigators, can be used with ease in the holistic approach to equine care and management.


How to use the Henneke BCS

The Henneke BCS simply uses six key points on your horse's body to measure the presence or lack of body fat. You, as the person administering the test, use your hands to feel these areas for a certain amount of fat and rate or judge that area on a scale of 1-9 (1 for no fat; 9 for extremely fat). After scoring all six points on the body you average out the score and come up with the score of your horse. ( See the chart inserted below.)


Looking at the chart, you can see that these six key points on the body of your horse are:

1. Along the neck

2. Along the withers

3. The ribs

4. Behind the shoulder

5. Crease down the loin

6. The tailhead


Placing your hands on these locations, decide what degree of fatty tissue you feel by palpation on a scale of 1-9 at that location. Write down your score. Repeat this process on all six areas and then average your score. It takes time to get comfortable with this process but after doing it a few times, you'll start to get the hang of it.


Why score my horse?

The most common cause in horse neglect is rarely intentional. Most often it is something overlooked or in many cases, owner ignorance. Using the Henneke BCS has several useful outcomes. First and foremost, you can write the results on a grease board or chalkboard in your barn or house to keep track of the progress or decline of any of your horses. Second, when you have your hands on your horse often, as this method requires, you are far more likely to notice and identify secondary or peripheral conditions that might arise such as sores, abnormalities, inflammation, etc. Third, a horse that experiences the frequent, caring touch and hands-on feeling of its rider/owner is more at ease with you and easier to manage. There are some people that only go out and gather up their horse when it's time to ride. Imagine the benefits to you both if he gets brought in for what turns out to be a little hands-on petting or massage. He'll be easier to catch and won't associate being haltered or brought into the barn with only a time to work. This is a valuable partnering experience in holistic equine management.


Scoring factors to consider

Seasonal: A horse scoring a 4 after a hard winter is understandable and will likely rebound with proper nutrition. They have burned additional fat and exhausted additional heat increments from foodstuffs to maintain a warmer body temperature and in doing so, by the end of a significant winter will have shed some points. So, it is fair to say that a horse scoring a 4 say in April is understandable. But conversely, a horse scoring a 4 in November is a red flag! I am illustrating here that scoring is not black and white. There are certainly regional and climatic factors that we take into consideration. If I were in, for example, northern Pennsylvania in an area prone to harsh winters or decent snow amounts I would warn a horse owner with an animal that scored a 4 that they are in for trouble and to modify/change their feed management program immediately.


Performance related: Here's another interesting consideration. Like athletes who run marathons, endurance horses that are actively being raced usually maintain a much lower body fat percentage. With that said, if I, as an investigator went to check on a horse that scored only a 3.5, but that horse was actively engaged in endurance activities I would see that as an acceptable BCS so long as, if there were cold weather conditions, that horse was being provided with adequate shelter and protection from the weather.


Standards and averages: Overall, the average pleasure horse should score between a 6 and 7 at all times. Horses that score an 8 or 9 would be the equivalent of an overweight person and their feed management program should be altered to reduce body fat. Again, as I have illustrated, there are many exceptions, however these are the standards of measurement for the typical horse. I've got a roping horse that is an athlete and while I still bump him up to a 7 coming into winter, it would not be uncommon for him to score a 5.5 during the summer months when we are most active, with fat deposits having been replaced by muscle development, so again, the average pleasure horse should be kept at an even 6-7 year round.


The Henneke Body Condition Score has been an invaluable tool both for investigators and the horse owning public. As a certified instructor in this method of equine management, I welcome your emails and questions.



About the author:

Kim Lewis is a published writer and speaker who presents seminars and workshops throughout the United States and Canada. He accepts students at his ranch on a limited basis. Email idahohorses1@netzero.com with questions.